The Search for Home in Times of War and Peace

My work for UNHCR, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees often makes me think about how many people in the world do not have a home.

Rohingya refugees cross the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh near Anzuman Para village. © UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Where, what is home? These sayings might come to mind…

Home is where the heart is.

An Englishman’s home is his castle.

Charity begins at home.

Bricks and mortar make a house, but the laughter of children makes a home.

The chickens have come home to roost.

There is no place like home.

Home sweet home.

Give me a home where the buffalo roam.

East or west, home is best.

Home is where you hang your hat.

Any Bob Dylan fans here — the recent Nobel Laureate for Literature? No Direction Home.

The Somali poet, Warsam Shire wrote:

No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark

My friend, Hani Al- Moliya, a young refugee from Syria who fled clutching his high school diploma and who is now studying in Canada said: Home is a place where I can find myself. I met him in his temporary home, a tent in a muddy field in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley a few years back.

Hani Al Moulia, a legally blind Syrian photographer, has an emotional reunion with Melissa Fleming at a breakfast with the Canadian Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council.

There are hundreds of ways of approaching the idea of home. But a lot of our thinking about home comes back to the idea of belonging. That place might be a country, or it might be a specific town, or a particular street, or a building on that street — even a room in that building. It might be a person or people — family or parents. Or it might be the magic mixture of people and place.

Home is a place where I can find myself.

Home certainly doesn’t have to be where you lay your head down at night, or where you spend most of your time. A person living on the streets is described as “homeless”, even if he or she has slept in the same shop doorway for a couple of years. A young child sent away to boarding school is described as “homesick” — longing not just to see mom and dad but also to go back home.

So as I have been thinking about home — and working as I do for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — I began thinking about how many people in the world do NOT have a home. And then I extended this a bit further, and asked myself the question:

How many people in the world live away from home?

That is a very difficult question to answer, not least because it depends on your definition of “home” — whether it is where your heart is, where you hang your hat, whether or not you can see buffalo, and so on.

But setting that problem to one side for one moment — and we’ll come back to it later — let’s see if we can have a stab at putting a number on how many people live away from home.

We can start with one official figure: according to the UN Population Fund, in 2015 244 million people lived outside their country of origin. That was up from 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990. If the trend has continued for the past two years, we are probably on 250 million by now.

Half of those 250 million people, by the way, live in only ten countries: the top five are the US, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE and the UK in roughly fifth equal place.

But you can slice that 250 million lots of ways: for example, Europe and Asia combined host nearly two thirds of all international migrants; that is followed by North America, then Africa, Latin America, and then the rest of the world.

A lot of this, you will not be surprised to hear, is down to globalisation and people looking for work. Some of it is down to conflict and persecution: among the total number of people living outside their country of origin are 22.5 million refugees — and counting.

But while 250 million seems like a lot of people, it is only 3.3 per cent of the world’s population.

Among the total number of people living outside their country of origin are 22.5 million refugees — and counting.
Rohingya refugees cross the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh through paddy fields near the Anjuman Para crossing point in October, 2017. UNHCR/Roger Arnold

This is only international migration, however: it doesn’t take into account internal migration.

Today we are experiencing a huge surge in urban growth, the biggest in history. 2007 was the first year in which more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas, and by 2050 about two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.

This gives us more numbers to play with. If I tell you, for example, that each lunar new year roughly 250 million Chinese take a holiday from their jobs in the rapidly growing cities and return home in the world’s largest human migration, you know that we can add another 250 million to our previous 250 million people living outside their places of origin. And that’s just China. Up to date figures for India, the next most populous nation, are very hard to come by but it is thought that about 20 per cent of the population is a migrant from another district or state, so that’s about 240 million people. Nearly 500 million internal migrants in the two most populous — and among the economically fastest-growing — countries on earth.

Let’s put that within the global picture. Internal migration is measured in different ways by different countries; some of these measurements are carried out by one-year cycles, others in five-year cycles, others by lifetime migration. But according to one study, as of 2005 there were approximately 763 million persons living within their own country but outside their region of birth. Internal migration does not move equally up or down in all countries — there are big variations — but we can estimate that this figure will certainly not have fallen, and probably risen significantly.

And while we have counted 22.5 million refugees, we have not counted another 43 million forcibly displaced people, including 10 million who are stateless.

So we’re already up to 250 plus at least 763 plus several million more equals … well, easily more than a billion.

And a warning: according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, tens of millions of people will be forced from their homes by climate change in the next decade, creating the biggest expulsion of people the world has ever seen.

Who else lives away from home? Well, let’s loosen the definition a little.

Last year, I drove my daughter to start her university career in France, and today, I am speaking to the McMaster University community, so I think we should include students in higher education, many of whom are living away from home for the first time.

There are a lot of different statistics on how many students there are in the world, depending on how you define “student”, but try this for a ballpark calculation.

According to the UN Population Fund, about 10 per cent of world population in 2015 was between the ages of 18 and 23, which is about the age for most university students.

If there are 7.43 billion people in the world, which is the UN Population Fund stat for 2016, that’s 743 million people aged between 18 and 23. We know that 36 per cent of youngsters of university age actually go to university, so that gives me a figure of 267.5 million students in some form of tertiary education. Not all of them will live away from home, so we should deduct a few, but then we’re not counting those in skills training, apprenticeships or internships, which would level it up again, so let’s round it up to 270 million.

We’re now at more than 1.3 billion people. So if we add people who move around a lot for work — people who serve in the military, oil workers, truckers, people in the merchant navy, and yes, people who work for the UN … we can, with our back-of-the-envelope calculations, get to one sixth of the world’s population without any difficulty. One in every six people on the planet lives away from home.

However approximate my math, it is clear that for a significant proportion of the world’s population, a life away from home is the norm.

One in every six people on the planet lives away from home.

Some of this vast movement of humanity presents great opportunities. Urbanisation brings huge social, economic and environmental transformations as we are seeing most recently in Asia and Africa. It brings people closer to jobs, better healthcare and more resources.

But it brings inequalities, too — competition for those jobs, healthcare, housing, sanitation and education. At the same time as being surrounded by so many people, urbanisation can create more exclusion, more poverty and more vulnerability.

Some of us — lucky enough to be well-educated, familiar with technology, relatively wealthy, happy to jump on and off a plane — we move from place to place as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps we have a good job but want a better one; perhaps we want adventure, to experience at first hand places we have read about in books or seen in films.

Some of us go in search of work to improve our material lives, to afford a better house, or a first car, or a fridge, or running water and electricity — perhaps living as cheaply as possible and sending money back home. (In passing, perhaps I should mention that remittances have become a huge part of the global economy: officially recorded remittances to developing countries were in the region of $429 billion in 2016; when you include remittance to high-income countries, that figure reaches $575 billion. In some countries, the amount of money sent home from abroad beats foreign direct investment or international aid.)

So we have a great mass of people who move from home for financial advantage, for the demands of their job, for adventure, or with some other motivation. But whether or not you think these currents of people will have a positive or a negative impact, there is one group of people on the move who stand apart. They are the people who move not in search of wealth, but after they have lost everything.

Homs has been witness to some of the worst fighting of the Syrian conflict — this is the destroyed neighbourhood of Khalidiya.

Adding together refugees, the internally displaced and the stateless, today there are today more than 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world. People who have fled bombs and bullets, or persecution for their political or religious beliefs or for their sexual or gender orientation.

These people are often described in the media as having been “uprooted” but in fact it is more accurate to say they have been severed from their roots. They had no time to pack, no chance to call in the freight company and have their belongings transported to a known address in another land, and probably little chance to say goodbye to friends and family.

Syrian refugees walk the final meters across the desert toward the berm that marks the official Jordanian border.

This number swells by 28,300 people every day.

Canada’s Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, himself a refugee from Somalia described it to me this way, “They [refugees] just happen to be ordinary people, who in extraordinary circumstances were displaced from their homes.”

At this point — and here we acknowledge the long, often perilous and sometimes deadly journeys these displaced people will undertake — we are confronted with new meanings of “home”.

Refugees and migrants arrive on the shores of Lesvos island, having crossed the Aegean sea from Turkey.

Remember Hani, the young refugee from Syria I mentioned? Well, he is also a poet and he recently wrote these lines recently on his Facebook feed:

Don’t ask the house who it was.

The door says the people are gone.

Where to? And for how long? By the end of 2016, 11.6 million refugees were living in protracted situations — the UNHCR definition of a protracted situation is where at least 25,000 people have been living in exile for five years or more. In fact, once a refugee is in a protracted situation, they will remain so for an average of more than 20 years. That is a shocking statistic in and of itself, but it also something to bear in mind when you think about what “home” means for a refugee.

Kakuma refugee camp in North-western Kenya has been home for some Sudanese refugees since 1992.

It is also worth remembering those figures when you realise that half the global refugee population are children, for whom “home” can become a place they barely know; a place in which have spent less than half their lives and of which they have only vague memories.

For some refugees, home will be a camp. Those of you who have never been to a large-scale refugee camp — like the series of camps at Kakuma, in northwest Kenya, which is home to about 170,000 people, or Zaatari, in Jordan, which went from a population of a few hundred to more than 80,000 in just three years — might be surprised how much activity goes on there. There are markets, schools, workshops, bakeries, hairdressers, tailors… there are not enough of these services, of course, and those that run them do so in basic conditions, but if anyone doubted the resilience of refugees and their ability to make some sort of home out of these conditions, a visit to a refugee camp would be an eye opener.

Zaatari refugee camp close to Jordan’s northern border with Syria, went from a population of a few hundred to more than 80,000 in just three years.

But today, only a small minority of refugees live in camps. The classic image of endless rows of white tents applies to only 10 per cent of them. Most live in towns and cities, while many more live in rural environments. Some live in settlements; others in back streets. Some have identity documents and can work, go to school, see a doctor; others have to duck and dive, not permitted a job or an apprenticeship, a place in the classroom — barred from exactly the kind of endeavour that would give them a measure of self-sufficiency and a way to carve out something more like a home, however temporary it might be, or they might want it to be.

An apartment house occupied by internally displaced persons outside Damascus, Syria which UNHCR was rehabilitating to make it more inhabitable. © UNHCR/Melissa Fleming.

For when people become refugees they need a special kind of home — defined in this case as a place of sanctuary where they can heal, and where they can rebuild. It is (or it should be) a place where they can prepare for the day they return to their native country, or for the day they can begin to give something back to those who offered them shelter.

This rebuilding process is rarely easy. The refugee crisis came to global attention in 2015, when thousands of people began washing up on the shores of Europe and the Western media went into overdrive. In reality, the vast majority of the world’s refugees — 84 per cent, in fact — are located in developing countries. Some of those countries are already struggling to feed, house and educate their own people, let alone large numbers of newcomers who arrive not in a slow trickle over a number of years but in a matter of weeks, sometime days.

When people become refugees they need a special kind of home.

Those are the millions of refugees, whose numbers are increasing daily. But there is another category of people who are “at home” but who themselves must be questioning what home means to them now. Any of you who have seen the images of the shattered cities of Syria or Iraq will, if you are like me, wonder not just why people would chose to remain there, but how on earth they manage to survive.

For in those images, we see physical homes — walls, windows, pipes, cables, girders, roofs — ripped to pieces, their constituent parts dumped in the streets, if you can still call them streets.

And yet for some reason this desire to stay put, this tenacity, goes unnoticed by those who like to say that refugees are looking for the easy life and are out to exploit the wealthy societies of the West. They cannot see that refugees never wanted to leave home in the first place, but did so in fear of their lives.

“I had to leave Burundi because if I hadn’t done so, I would not be alive today.”

For refugees, home has a precious value, a profound emotional pull that those of us who are free to wander the world find hard to understand — not because we are callous or indifferent, but because we have visas, plane tickets, budget accommodation and thus, as global citizens, an embarrassment of riches. And because we know we can return home, any time we like.

When you live in an enforced exile, life is very different. Probably you had no intention of moving and were happy where you were. If you did have plans to move you might have thought about moving to the bright lights of the capital, or to a neighbouring country where the food, language, music and films were all similar. Not to wash up on a distant shore, or fend for yourself in the back streets of a strange metropolis.

Whenever I meet refugees in the course of my job, I always ask them what home means to them.

Ketty Nivyabandi, a refugee I met from Burundi and an activist who has found asylum in Canada said, “Nobody wants to leave their home. We leave because our countries are on fire. If I am here today it is because I have no choice. I had to leave Burundi because if I hadn’t done so, I would not be alive today.” She also told me she stopped showing her children photos of the home they left in Burundi, because they only cry.

Burundian activist Ketty Nivyabandi has found asylum in Canada.

… people who yesterday were just like us. They had a home, that might have been large and expensive and in a desirable part of town, or might have been small and simple, or anywhere in between.

All of a sudden they are strangers in our midst and in a very short space of time they have gone from looking after themselves and their families to being reliant on other people.

How we react to them, particularly in wealthy regions of the world, says much about us as human beings. As the scientist, philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon put it:

The parts and signs of goodness are many. If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.

Being a refugee is never just about who you are fleeing from. It is also very much about who you are fleeing to. Alas, humanity’s track record is, to put it mildly, patchy in this regard. From the Huguenots fleeing France after 1685, to the Muhacirs who escaped to Anatolia from the late 18th century onwards, to the Jews who fled the pogroms in 19th and early 20th century Russia, refugees have for centuries been greeted with a mixture of hospitality and hostility. It would be nice if we could point to a long tradition of compassion, or even practicality, when it comes to accepting large numbers of refugees — and there have indeed been some shining examples of courage and sacrifice that we still celebrate today. But compassion has rarely been mankind’s default response.

This, of course, is before we get to the two world wars and the numerous violent upheavals of the 20th century, and the new conflicts of the 21st that are creating ever greater numbers of the displaced and the dispossessed. I don’t need to remind you of the kind of horrors that people all over the world are fleeing. Yet amid the compassion that many people, including governments, have shown, the welcome they get today is frequently hostile — fences and barbed wire — and the rhetoric their plight engenders is angry and shrill.

A Hungarian police officer stands guard by the border fence with Serbia in September 2015.

Demagogues speak of swarms, hordes and invasions. To them, strangers are not friends you haven’t met yet; they are aliens and predators, ready to steal and strip us of our resources, to impose values and cultures that will clash with, and eventually overwhelm, our own. We are the haves, the logic goes, they are the have nots — and for the populists, refugees and immigrants (if they bother to make the distinction) are hell bent on evening up that equation.

But there are other examples. Take the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, Leoluca Orlando. Every time a ship with brings rescued refugees and migrants into his harbor, the mayor is there to greet them. “Welcome,” he says to them. “The worst is over. You are citizens of Palermo now.”

The mayor of Palermo, Sicily, Leoluca Orlando welcomes refugees and migrants into his harbor.

Has this cost him politically? He doesn’t think so, “I was elected mayor with a victory of 74%. That means people think I’m right. There is no intolerance in the stomach of the people, it’s only in the minds of politicians.”

Fortunately, there are also ordinary people who are so moved by the suffering of others that they feel compelled to take action. They realise they do have the power to make a difference: by making donations, fundraising, writing to their governments, employing refugees, volunteering at support centres. And there are people who have gone beyond those vital and essential acts and even opened up their homes.

One of UNHCR’s recent projects is “No Stranger Place”, a series of profiles of refugees and the people across Europe who took them in; the project was developed in partnership with us by the photographer Aubrey Wade and the writer Nadine Alfa. It tells the stories of people like Manuela and Jörg Buisset, who saw news pictures of hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Berlin, their home city, throughout the summer of 2015, many of them living on the streets.

In Berlin, the Buissets gave a warm welcome to Syrian refugees Ahmed, Nourhan and their daughter Alin.

The Buissets had just finished renovating their modern basement apartment and were planning to rent it out. Instead, they signed up to a scheme run by the non-profit Berlin Refugee Council to offer temporary housing for refugees. They’d take somebody in, they thought, at least for a short while.

One day the phone went and Manuela took a call saying someone needed the spare space in their home. But it was more than one person. It was a family — three Syrians: Ahmed, his wife Nourhan, and their two-year-old daughter. They had vouchers for motels, but there were no vacancies.

It was more people than they had anticipated but Manuela felt, we can’t say no, and in any case it’s only for ten days. So she and Jorg went and picked up the family and the two small plastic bags that contained all their belongings.

Manuela remembers it as a strange and awkward introduction — in fact, she was pretty scared. Ahmed, who was only 28, was very shy and thought it was impolite to make eye contact with his German hosts; for their part, they thought this was rude, and that this young Syrian man was a pretty stubborn and unappealing character. Still, it was only for ten days…

Well, something went right, because ten days turned into more than a year, and the combined household grew slightly larger because last July Nourhan produced a baby boy. Ahmed took intensive German classes while Nourhan looked after the children, but she still dreams of becoming a hairdresser.

But there is little doubt where she and her husband regard as their true home. In November 2015, there was a round of peace talks in Vienna and Ahmed and Nourhan were so optimistic they actually started packing their bags. As we now know, those hopes were soon dashed. Almost two years since those talks were held, peace in Syria remains a distant prospect.

Syrian refugee Ahmed and his teenage children have been welcomed in Sweden by married couple Gabriella and Candel Webster.

“No Stranger Place” is a project with many similar stories. Stories that started with people watching or reading the news and offering a corner of their homes to someone who badly needed it. And because it is a photographic project, one of the most striking things about it is to look at the images of hosts and refugees together, and to see how some of these new partnerships involve people who conventional wisdom would tell us might have difficulty getting along: the young Syrian man who cooks on the Sabbath for his Jewish hosts, for example. Or another Syrian, a devout Muslim, who first found himself taking shelter in a Swedish church and who was then offered a home by a couple in a same-sex marriage.

It would be naïve to suppose there had not been problems along the way; all families fight, best friends fall out, neighbours quarrel. But the longevity of these relationships tells you a great deal about how, in times of crisis, our differences matter so much less than the human attributes, needs and emotions we share. That, indeed, is not a bad definition of “compassion”. “We can learn to move towards each other, leave prejudices behind, learn to help each other” — those are the words of Rosa, the daughter in a German-Jewish family that took in a Syrian refugee who had left his country because he refused to be conscripted and fight against his fellow countrymen. He is the one, by the way, who did the cooking for the Sabbath.

This German-Jewish family took in a Syrian refugee who had left his country because he refused to fight against his fellow countrymen.

These people are showing us how, in the battle between compassion and fear, compassion can win, for there are few things more compassionate than bringing a stranger into your home.

This battle never seems to stop. You may recall the images of football fans in Germany unfurling banners in their stadiums that read: “Refugees Welcome”. Yet in September the far-right nationalist AfD party won nearly 13 per cent of the vote, and its first seats in Germany’s federal parliament, on a nakedly anti-refugee platform.

Throughout the world, we have repeatedly seen populists stoking fears over immigrants and refugees — for in their minds there is little difference — and anti-immigrant sections of the media join in with shrill enthusiasm.

But one thing this battle for hearts and minds do tell us is that there is an argument to be won. “You are home. Welcome home.” Those were the words of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, when the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees landed in Canada. Trudeau made the argument to his electorate, and won it. He showed you can be a compassionate leader and still win — welcoming Syrian refugees “not as burdens, but as neighbours and friends and new Canadians”.

Canada’s remarkable private sponsorship of refugees programme has brought more than 275,000 refugees to the country since it started in 1979. And Canada is one of UNHCR’s biggest donors.

So if, at last, I was to come to some sort of definition of “home”, I would offer you this: Home is a place of compassionate community. It is a place where the act of compassion benefits the receiver but also enriches the giver.

Home is a place of compassionate community.

And, since this is the Mahatma Gandhi lecture, I will remind you of one of the sayings attributed to him, which is that “compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.” I mention that because while Trudeau took the argument to the political arena, Manuela and Jörg Buisset are only ordinary people who decided that they had to win the argument with their own actions and with the only resources they had available. They had to make a leap of faith; they had to get through the awkwardness of the first few meals, the new bathroom arrangements, the risk of giving and taking offense, until their guests became extended members of their families and their compassion muscles had grown stronger.

In his first visit outside Rome after becoming Pope, Francis went to the Island of Lampedusa to meet refugees and migrants who had been rescued on the brink of death and warned of a “globalization of indifference” that “we have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business.”

In his TED talk this year, the Pope called for a “revolution of tenderness.” He said, “We all need each other, none of us is an island, an autonomous and independent ‘I,’ separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.”


Adapted from my 2017 Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Nonviolence, at McMaster University, delivered on 9 November 2017

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